Storytellers promoted cooperation among hunter-gatherers before advent of religion

December 5, 2017, University College London
Camp elder telling stories. Credit: Daniel Smith

Storytelling promoted co-operation in hunter-gatherers prior to the advent of organised religion, a new UCL study reveals.

The research shows that hunter-gatherer storytellers were essential in promoting co-operative and egalitarian values before comparable mechanisms evolved in larger agricultural societies, such as moralising high-gods.

Storytellers were also more popular than even the best foragers, had greater reproductive success, and were more likely to be co-operated with by other members of the camp, according to the research published today in Nature Communications.

The researchers, led by Daniel Smith, Andrea Migliano and Lucio Vinicius from UCL's Department of Anthropology and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, based their findings on their study of the Agta, an extant hunter-gatherer group descended from the first colonisers of the Philippines more than 35,000 years ago.

They asked three elders to tell them stories they normally told their children and each other, resulting in four stories narrated over three nights. They found the stories about humanised natural entities such as animals or celestial bodies promoted social and co-operative norms to co-ordinate group behaviour.

Agta elder. Credit: Katie Major

One, about the male sun falling out with the female moon before settling their differences over who should illuminate the sky by agreeing to share the duty, one during the day and the other during the night. The promotes sex equality and co-operation between the sexes, which is common among forager societies.

The UCL study showed that 70% of a sample of 89 stories from seven different hunter-gatherer societies concerned reinforcing and regulating .

"These stories appear to co-ordinate group behaviour and facilitate co-operation by providing individuals with social information about the norms, rules and expectations in a given society", according to Daniel Smith.

Consistent with this interpretation, Agta camps with a greater proportion of skilled story-tellers possessed increased levels of co-operation.

Agta camp. Credit: Daniel Smith

Almost 300 members from 18 Agta camps were also asked to choose who they would most like to live with, with skilled storytellers nearly twice as likely to be nominated as less skilled individuals.

Potentially because they receive increased social support in return for telling stories, the study found that skilled storytellers had on average 0.53 more children than those who were not skilled, demonstrating the reproductive benefits of being a good storyteller.

The authors state that storytelling may have been pivotal in organising human social behaviour by promoting co-operation, spreading co-operative norms and representing punishment of norm-breakers.

"Hunter-gatherer religions do not have moralising gods and yet they are highly cooperative towards the whole community. Thus, storytelling in hunter-gatherers was a precursor to more elaborate forms of narrative fiction such as moralising high-gods, common in post-agricultural populations", said Andrea Migliano, the last author of the paper.

Explore further: Key friendships vital for effective human social networks

More information: Daniel Smith et al, Cooperation and the evolution of hunter-gatherer storytelling, Nature Communications (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-02036-8

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6 comments

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TheGhostofOtto1923
2 / 5 (4) Dec 05, 2017
Old men desperate to prove their worth to the tribe became entertainers. Later on they learned how to use fear and greed, and became priests.
Whydening Gyre
3.3 / 5 (3) Dec 05, 2017
Old men desperate to prove their worth to the tribe became entertainers. Later on they learned how to use fear and greed, and became priests.

Because they found lying to be an advantage...
Not necessarily old men.
Usually us older guys like the truth - a lot easier to process...
ddaye
5 / 5 (2) Dec 05, 2017
Both old guys and old women are kept around because of the value of their knowledge. Stories are just one part of that value. Other social animals keep aged members around so there's more to it than individual macho-hominids showing off.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Dec 06, 2017
Both old guys and old women are kept around because of the value of their knowledge. Stories are just one part of that value. Other social animals keep aged members around so there's more to it than individual macho-hominids showing off
Perhaps. Perhaps 'wisdom' is another artifice invented to preserve their place at the communal fire.

In actuality the older we get the dumber we get. Our brains begin to deteriorate shortly after adolescence. Throughout the Pleistocene most people were dead from accident, predation, disease, and violence by age 26.

So 'elder' is a relative term.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Dec 06, 2017
Usually us older guys like the truth - a lot easier to process..
Really? Keeping up with the truth in a quickly-evolving techno society becomes more difficult as our brains slowly decrepitate. Seniors are usually the people most reluctant to let go of obsolete conventions.

Easier to lump things and people into categories. Old people are more prone to prejudice and irrationality.
StudentofSpiritualTeaching
1 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2017
This story is too quickly jumping to false conclusions. It is natural that earliest human beings had tried to overcome their fears from the still not understood things around them by inventing stories that had at least some linkage to their already understood aspects of nature. Over time, while gradually understanding the real causes of previously mysterious natural phenomena, the primitive beliefs got piece by piece abandoned. They morphed then into consciously used fairytales for entertainment and education of mostly children, because indeed teaching them matters around moral. I am sure that you agree with me that fairytales can serve didactical purposes. However, the fact of us on this planet witnessing a whole plethora of phantasy god belief cults, AFTER overcoming the evolutionary stage of animism is an abnormality that must be overcome at the earliest. The reasons for this plague are different than scientists are guessing.

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